Florida’s Underground Railroad (Part Three)

The Black Seminoles

Many might assume that the Underground Railroad traveled in one direction: north to freedom, away from slavery and the plantations of the South. Few realize that runaway slaves also fled south into Florida for almost two centuries before the Civil War.

In recognition of Black History Month, this three-part series of blog posts introduces aspects of resistance to slavery in Florida history. We conclude with the story of the Black Seminoles.

Runaway slaves forged close alliances with the Florida Seminoles in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Historians struggle to find an appropriate term for persons of African descent living in Seminole Country. In Florida, these people came to be known to historians as “Black Seminoles” or “Seminole Maroons.”

Excerpt from a map of Florida by H.S. Tanner (1823) showing Suwannee Old Town, situated on the path from Tallahassee to Alachua

Excerpt from a map of Florida by H.S. Tanner (1823) showing Suwannee Old Town, situated on the path from Tallahassee to Alachua

Prior to the Seminole Wars, Black Seminole communities could be found near Old Town on the Suwannee River, north of Tampa at Pilaklikaha, and near modern day Sarasota at a settlement sometimes referred to as Angola. Other smaller Black Seminole settlements existed throughout this range.

Excerpt from “A Map of the Seat of War in Florida,” by Captain John Mackay and Lieutenant J. Black, U.S. Topographical Engineers (1839), showing battles and natural features near Pilaklikaha

Excerpt from “A Map of the Seat of War in Florida,” by Captain John Mackay and Lieutenant J. Black, U.S. Topographical Engineers (1839), showing battles and natural features near Pilaklikaha

On several occasions Seminoles and their African allies banded together in the defense of their homelands.

In 1812, a combined force of Africans and Seminoles repelled Georgians known as the “Patriot Army” who intended to capture slaves and seize parts of Spanish Florida for the United States.

The success against the Patriot Army was followed by a series of defeats. On July 20, 1816, the Americans destroyed the “Negro Fort” on the Apalachicola River. The fort, built by the British in the closing stages of the War of 1812, held hundreds of defenders who were killed when a heated cannon ball blew up the powder magazine.

The American drive to acquire Florida caused further hardship for Black Seminoles. After Andrew Jackson’s slave raid into Spanish Florida, also known as the First Seminole War (1816-1818), most Africans abandoned their towns along the Suwannee River and took refuge further south in the remote interior sections of central Florida.

The number of runaway slaves in Florida increased when the United States acquired Florida from Spain in 1821. As planters from Georgia and the Carolinas arrived in northern Florida, some of the people they held in bondage escaped and joined the Seminoles. Article VII of the treaty made at Camp Moultrie in September 1823 compelled the Seminoles to be “active and vigilant” in preventing runaway slaves from entering their territory. Moreover, the treaty required Seminoles to “apprehend and deliver” fugitive slaves to federal agents.

Excerpt from “Treaty with the Florida Tribes of Indians,” also known as the Treaty at Camp Moultrie or the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, September 18, 1823

Excerpt from “Treaty with the Florida Tribes of Indians,” also known as the Treaty at Camp Moultrie or the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, September 18, 1823

Seminoles and Black Seminoles pushed back when American officials attempted to enforce the Indian Removal Act in Florida. In late 1835 and early 1836, Seminoles and their African allies launched a series of raids on U.S. Army fortifications and attacked sugar plantations in East Florida. Africans enslaved on these plantations fled during the chaos and in many cases joined the Black Seminoles.

These events marked the beginning of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the longest and costliest American Indian War in U.S. history. Because of the prominent role of Africans in the conflict, General Thomas Sidney Jesup famously proclaimed, “This is…a negro, not an Indian war.” Historians consider this statement reflective of southern plantation owners’ fears of the Seminole Wars erupting into a broader slave rebellion.

Abraham, a Black Seminole interpreter, figured prominently in the tense negotiations during the early stages of the Second Seminole War.

Abraham, intrepreter and war leader (circa 1837)

Abraham, intrepreter and war leader (circa 1837)

Abraham delivered messages on several occasions to General Jesup from principal Seminole leaders and also participated in talks with U.S. military officials. In the entry below from his field diary, dated March 18, 1837, Jesup mentions spending the “whole evening” in conference with Seminole leaders accompanied by Abraham.

Jesup diary, March 18, 1837

“Micanopy and Aligator, with Abra[ha]m spent the whole evening with General Jesup.” [pg. 75-76]

“Micanopy and Aligator, with Abra[ha]m spent the whole evening with General Jesup.” [pg. 75-76]

The end of the Seminole Wars in 1858 struck a major blow to the aspirations of runaway slaves in Florida. No longer able to find freedom in Seminole Country, runaway slaves increasingly sought the Underground Railroad or, during the Civil War, service in the Union Army as the path to escape slavery.

To learn more about the African peoples who resisted slavery in the southeast, visit the National Park Services’ Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor website.

Florida’s Underground Railroad (Part Two)

Fort Mose

Many might assume that the Underground Railroad traveled in one direction: north to freedom, away from slavery and the plantations of the South. Few realize that runaway slaves also fled south into Florida for almost two centuries before the Civil War.

In recognition of Black History Month, this three-part series of blog posts introduces aspects of resistance to slavery in Florida history. This post describes Fort Mose, the first legally-sanctioned free-black community in what is now the United States.

Africans resisted slavery from its inception in the Americas. From the mountains of Jamaica and Brazil, to the swamps of Florida, Africans formed independent communities and forged alliances with Native peoples. In the United States before the Civil War, thousands of slaves sought freedom north of the Mason-Dixon Line as well as in Canada, with Native American societies in the South and West, and even in the Bahamas. Africans found refuge in Abolitionist-minded communities, particularly in New England, or, in the case of Florida, with the Seminoles.

Before Florida became a territory of the United States, Spanish Florida offered a haven for freedom-seeking people.

“Plano de la Ciudad y Puerto de San Agustin de la Florida,” by Tomas Lopez de Vargas Machuca (ca. 1783)

“Plano de la Ciudad y Puerto de San Agustin de la Florida,” by Tomas Lopez de Vargas Machuca (ca. 1783)

Fort Mose, perhaps the best known free-black community in what is now the United States, traces its roots to the late 1600s. In the 1680s, the Spanish organized an African militia unit in St. Augustine to help protect against raids and, in 1693, King Charles II of Spain established legal sanctuary for runaway slaves who reached Florida. Though not all blacks in Florida obtained freedom, the policies of the Spanish government provided a path out of slavery.

Free blacks established Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose just north of St. Augustine in 1739. The settlement contained Fort Mose, depicted on the map above as “Fuerte Negro,” and the homes of its defenders and their families. On several occasions the free-black militia participated in the defense of their city against English and Native American invaders.

In 1763, at the conclusion of the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War), the residents of Fort Mose left Florida for Cuba with the Spaniards and Christian Indians (Apalachee and Timucuan) living in St. Augustine before the war; some Africans returned when Spain resumed control of Florida in 1783.

In Black Society in Spanish Florida, historian Jane Landers documents several African-owned plantations in East Florida during the Second Spanish period. Some grants, such as the one below awarded to Prince Juan Bautista Wiet (or Witten), resulted from loyal service to the Crown.

Petition by Prince Juan Bautista Wiet, St. Augustine, November 1795

Petition by Prince Juan Bautista Wiet, St. Augustine, November 1795

Freedom in Spanish Florida required military service and acceptance of Catholicism. Many free blacks continued to practice a mixture of African-based and adopted foreign beliefs. Africans living in the Spanish colonies also joined secular and religious mutual aid organizations known as cabildos and cofradías.

Much is written on the role of African men in Spanish Florida, particularly their military service in defense of St. Augustine. African women also contributed to the economy, owned land, and engaged the Spanish legal system to their benefit. As with men, African women did not enjoy the same social status as white residents of Spanish Florida, but their conditions and potential for economic advancement exceeded those of many Africans in the Americas until the late 19th century.

To learn more about the African peoples who resisted slavery in the southeast, visit the National Park Services’ Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor website.

Happy Birthday Moses Williams (February 15, 1919)

Moses Williams playing the diddley bow- Waverly, Florida

Moses Williams playing the diddley bow- Waverly, Florida

Moses Williams (1919-1988) was born February 15 in Itta Bena, Mississippi. He spent much of his life traveling, either in show business or working as an itinerant farm worker, which eventually brought him to Florida.

Moses Williams playing the diddley bow for a group of boys- Waverly, Florida

Moses Williams playing the diddley bow for a group of boys- Waverly, Florida

At the age of 11, he learned the harmonica, but it was his one-string zither, or “diddley bow,” that made him unique. The instrument was comprised of a broom wire tensioned upside a door with a tin can resonator, and played with glass bottle slide. It earned him nicknames like “Broom Wire Slim” and “Doorman.”

Moses Williams playing the diddley bow - White Springs, Florida

Moses Williams playing the diddley bow – White Springs, Florida

Moses was discovered by folklorist Dwight DeVane in the late 1970s, and appeared on the Florida Folklife Program’s 1981 double LP, Drop on Down in Florida, which was recently reissued by Dust-to-Digital. In addition to these recordings, Moses made several appearances at the Florida Folk Festival, schools, and other folk arts forums around the state.

His distinctive repertoire for the diddley bow consisted of both standards such as “Sitting on Top of the World” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and original tunes, most notably “Which Way Did My Baby Go” and “Apple Farm Blues.” Both of these songs have been included on the Florida Folklife Collection sampler CDs Music from the Florida Folklife Collection and Where the Palm Trees Shake at Night: Blues Music from the Florida Folklife Collection.  Enjoy.

“Which Way Did My Baby Go”
[audio:http://floridamemory.com/audio/dl.php?track=MosesWilliams.mp3|titles=Which Way Did My Baby Go|artists=Moses Williams]
Download: MP3

“Apple Farm Blues”
[audio:http://floridamemory.com/audio/dl.php?track=cd5/06mwilliams.mp3|titles=Apple Farm Blues|artists=Moses Williams]
Download: MP3

Pensacola at the Turn of the 20th Century

Enjoy some of our favorite photos of Pensacola in the early 1900s.

Pensacola Fire Department (1903)

Pensacola Fire Department (1903)

Mounted Patrol during the streetcar strike (April 1908)

Mounted Patrol during the streetcar strike (April 1908)

Pensacola Harbor (1903)

Pensacola Harbor (1903)

Palafox Street (ca. 1910)

Palafox Street (ca. 1910)

Consolidated Grocery Company at the Citizens National Bank (1906)

Consolidated Grocery Company at the Citizens National Bank (1906)

Found a great photo of Pensacola at the turn of the 20th century that we missed? Share it with us in the comments.

Florida’s Underground Railroad (Part One)

Harriet Tubman’s Florida Legacy

Many might assume that the Underground Railroad traveled in one direction: north to freedom, away from slavery and the plantations of the South. Few realize that runaway slaves also fled south into Florida for almost two centuries before the Civil War.

In recognition of Black History Month, this three-part series of blog posts will introduce aspects of resistance to slavery in Florida history. We begin towards the end of the story with the Moses of the Underground Railroad.

Harriet Tubman, from a woodcut (ca. 1865)

Harriet Tubman, from a woodcut (ca. 1865)

Harriet Tubman, known as “The Conductor” of the Underground Railroad, spent time in Florida during her years of fighting for freedom. Born into slavery in Maryland, circa 1820, Tubman escaped in 1849 or 1850. She made numerous return trips to the South in order to free relatives and complete strangers alike. Tubman and her associates relied on a series of safe houses along the Underground Railroad. These stopping points represented a network of Abolitionists committed to aiding escaped slaves in pursuit of freedom. Scholars estimate that Tubman personally conducted at least 300 slaves to freedom in the 1850s and 1860s.

Excerpt from the letterhead of the British & Foreign Antislavery Society on a letter to Florida Governor John Branch, October 8, 1844

Excerpt from the letterhead of the British & Foreign Antislavery Society on a letter to Florida Governor John Branch, October 8, 1844

Because of the Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, the final destination for many runaways was Canada. Enforcement of the Act in northern cities and towns meant living in fear of roving slave catchers and the possibility of re-enslavement.

Tubman’s reputation for successfully transporting slaves to freedom became such that the Maryland Legislature at one point offered $12,000 for her capture; slave owners in the area raised the bounty to $40,000.

Tampa newspaper advertisement offering a reward for the return of a runaway slave (November 17, 1860)

Tampa newspaper advertisement offering a reward for the return of a runaway slave (November 17, 1860)

In addition to her clandestine activities, Tubman served in an official capacity during the Civil War as a nurse, cook, and spy for the Union War Department. She cared for soldiers with herbal treatments and using skills honed on the Underground Railroad she helped emancipate African-American men for service in the Union Army.

Excerpt from “Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861-1865: General Topographical Map, Sheet XII” (ca. 1865), showing northeast Florida

Excerpt from “Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861-1865: General Topographical Map, Sheet XII” (ca. 1865), showing northeast Florida

In Florida and South Carolina, the men recruited by Tubman conducted raids and guerilla warfare against plantations along the St. Marys and St. Johns Rivers. They carried off additional slaves as well as goods to aid in the war effort and in several instances exchanged fire with Confederate troops. Tubman accompanied the men on some of these expeditions and reported the intelligence gathered to Union officers.

So valuable was her service, the federal government authorized a pension for Tubman after the Civil War. Harriet Tubman would have been a remarkable person during any period in history. It is especially significant that a woman, illiterate and born into slavery, accomplished so much and that field commanders during the Civil War sought the knowledge and assistance of an African-American in the war to end slavery.

Black History Month

In 1926, Dr. Carter G. Woodson began officially commemorating African-American history during an annual week of remembrance. Woodson promoted the observance of “Negro History Week” during the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

Kurz and Allison lithographic print showing African-American troops at the Battle at Olustee (February 20, 1864)

Kurz and Allison lithographic print showing African-American troops at the Battle at Olustee (February 20, 1864)

Woodson was one of the first academically trained African-American historians in the United States. Through his efforts to celebrate and study the nation’s African-American heritage, February is now officially designated as Black History Month.

Black history in Florida is especially rich, dating back to the early 16th century. The Black History Month resources page on Florida Memory features a number of resources on African-American history from the collections of the State Library and Archives of Florida.

Educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune: Daytona Beach (early 1900s)

Educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune: Daytona Beach (early 1900s)

Stay tuned this month for posts that provide glimpses into the struggles and triumphs of persons of African descent in Florida history.

Thomas Sidney Jesup and the Second Seminole War (Part Six)

General Thomas Sidney Jesup commanded military operations against the Seminoles in Florida during the early stages of the conflict now known as the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). The Second Seminole War was the longest and costliest Indian War in American history. Jesup’s field diary, available on Florida Memory, contains his perspective on the war from October 1, 1836, to May 30, 1837. This series of blog posts places significant entries from the Jesup diary in the context of the Seminole Wars and the history of Anglo-American Indian-African relations in the American South. Below is the sixth post in the series.

“Jumper said the Miccosukees had caused the war—that they were a “bad people” & Micanopy had not been able to restrain them—that the Indians, particularly the Seminoles, were desirous of peace and wished to live on terms of friendship with the white people.”

“Jumper said the Miccosukees had caused the war—that they were a “bad people” & Micanopy had not been able to restrain them—that the Indians, particularly the Seminoles, were desirous of peace and wished to live on terms of friendship with the white people.”

Native Americans living in Florida during the Seminole Wars were not, in fact, all Seminoles. However, from the perspective of the United States government, all Florida Indians were Seminoles. It was more expedient to deal with Native peoples inhabiting a particular region as if they were a single entity, with one set of political views, rather than recognize their diversity. This practice was foundational to the Indian policy of the United States in the early 19th century; all Indians in Alabama and Georgia were Creeks, and all Indians in Florida were Seminoles.

The reality was that the Creeks and Seminoles were not one political entity unto themselves; nor did they always act independently without joint council. The conflicts between the so-called “friendly” and “rebel” Red Stick Creeks, discussed in an earlier post, were only one of several ways Creeks (and Seminoles) divided themselves. They considered themselves first as a member of a clan, second as a resident of a town, and third, part of a larger collection of towns that comprised a confederacy. Scholars disagree over which—clan, town, or nation—was most important in influencing the identity and daily life of southeastern American Indians.

When Jesup arrived in Florida he quickly learned that a great difference of opinions existed among the Seminoles on the issue of removal. Because of his experience in the Second Creek War, he was already aware that not all Creeks considered themselves part of a single political entity. In this way, military officers on the ground often differed from policy makers far removed from the theater of war; Jesup learned to respect the internal divisions in Indian society even if his superior officers remained ignorant of the same.

In this entry from his field diary, Jesup reports that Jumper, also known as Otee Emathlar, echoed the sentiments of other Seminoles that the Miccosukees (also spelled Mikasuki and several other ways) had started the war. Jesup had previously heard this statement from the black Seminole Abraham, interpreter and adviser for Micanopy (see Jesup diary, January 31, 1837).

The Miccosukees migrated to Florida in the early 18th century. They spoke a dialect of the Muscogee language known as Hitchiti, which although related to was mutually unintelligible from the main Muscogee tongue. Their early date of arrival in Florida from the north made the Miccosukees the first Native American immigrants into the territory after the destruction of the Spanish Missions in 1702-1704.

According to Seminole leaders who met with Jesup, the Miccosukees refused to negotiate and intended to remain hostile to the United States. The division between Seminoles and Miccosukees is not as clear-cut as it may seem, and these were certainly not the only factions of Florida Indians involved in the war. Jesup also became aware of Creeks, Red Sticks, Tallahassees and Uchees (also spelled Yuchi or Euchee) involved in the fighting. With the exception of the Creeks friendly to the United States, most Florida Indians resisted removal.

Another factor that complicates Jumper’s statement is his intent. Jesup believed that Seminole leaders were delaying removal by blaming the war on the Miccosukees. It would have been impossible for Jesup to tell a Miccosukee from a Seminole unless they declared themselves to him. Assigning blame to the Miccosukees for causing the war might have been a tactic designed to frustrate and stall the Americans. While the negotiations dragged on, the Seminoles continued to receive federal rations. Since most of their livestock were driven off and their fields burned by the U.S. Army, the government-supplied rations were necessary for survival.

Evidence from the period after the end of the Seminole Wars in 1858 may support Jumper’s claim about divisions between Seminoles and Miccosukees. In the 20th century, the federal government became aware that Florida Indians considered themselves to be at least two distinct groups. Seminoles lived in the Kissimmee River Valley north of Lake Okeechobee and spoke Creek (or Muscogee), Miccosukees lived in the Big Cypress Swamp and near the Miami River and spoke Hitchiti (or Mikasuki).

The movement to federal reservations, which began in the 1930s, further highlighted these differences. In the 1950s and 1960s, internal political divisions led to the creation of two federally recognized tribes in southern Florida: the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida. Some Florida Indians refused to join either of these Tribes, and remain independent to the present day.